Stage carpenter James
been on a leave of absence
for thirty-two of the thirty-seven days the Iroquois
Theater was in operation prior to the fire.
Why is an absentee carpenter significant?
Because, according to Iroquois Theater managers and
other employees, Cummings was the house stage boss.
Though the Mr. Bluebeard company included a
man with the title, title "stage manager," William
Carlton, carpenter Cummings was the primary conduit
between the Iroquois stage and Iroquois
owner-managers. As a longtime employee of Iroquois
manager Will J. Davis, Cummings superintended
installation of the rigging loft, was said to be
responsible for the operation of everything on the
stage and was blamed by Iroquois management, so said
newspaper reports, for not having kept them informed
of noncompliance with city ordinances.
Nonetheless he was arrested and held on $5,000 bond
before the coroner's inquest, then held over for the
February, 1905 grand jury trial. It was reported that at
his arrest he remarked, "I've worked for the old man
J. Davis] thirty years, and I'll stick to him
now. I've done nothing to be ashamed of, and the old
man will be along soon to get me out. I hate being
locked up. Mayor Harrison isn't, and he has been
held responsible just as much as I have. They've got
no business to drag me out of bed and lock me up."
He was correct about Davis getting him out; Iroquois co-owner,
Harry Powers, came along later to pay Cummings
bail. If Cummings thought Davis had the pull
to prevent his prosecution, he was mistaken.
Cummings' level of authority and responsibility on
the Iroquois stage, his arrest was predictable.
His combative attitude may have contributed to his
being held over for the grand jury investigation.
On multiple occasions the man testified as to how
the fire started - but also testified that he
wasn't even in the theater when the fire started,
at the hardware store, so saw nothing.
wicked coach approach
February, 1904 inquest, despite Cummings emphatic
statement of loyalty to his boss, deputy corner Lawrence
Buckley made much of Cummings having been coached on
his testimony by his that boss's attorney,
Perce. Using Cummings' testimony to paint
Davis as a man with something to hide was Buckley's
understandable objective but newspaper reports of
extracts from their exchange did a poor job of
painting that picture. Perhaps it was more
damning if seen and heard. The published
account depicted a casual meet-up at the Illinois
Theater, site of Will Davis' offices. As
Cummings described it, with the Iroquois closed and
no job to keep him busy, he wandered into the
Illinois and sat around chewing the fat. Well
yes, attorney Perce was there and yes, they talked
in general about how the trial might go but nobody
told him what to say.
also implied Cummings had poorly managed one of his
subordinates, Iroquois fireman
Though Cummings had no official role in selecting or
hiring the fireman, he was Sallers' immediate
supervisor and provided the only instructions to the
fireman as to his job description. A week before the Iroquois
opened, Cummings instructed Sallers to make sure
there was no smoking on the premises, and that the
with municipal fire ordinances. Sallers'
testimony agreed with that characterization of their
initial discussion. If Cummings and Sallers
discussed those ordinances, even in an abbreviated
way, either Buckley did not bring it out in
questioning or newspapers didn't publish it.
I'm inclined to dismiss newspaper omission because
my gut and several years of pouring over newspaper
coverage of the disaster tells me that to satisfy
public interest, newspapers would have done an inch
or two about the judge dropping his pencil.
That leaves some puzzles in Buckley's approach.
After establishing that Cummings hadn't followed up
with Sallers to learn if the theater was in
compliance with ordinances, Buckley dropped that
line of questioning. Did Cummings have a clue
what ordinances were involved? If not, how
could he possibly know whether Sallers was meeting
the objective? Did Cummings have a plan for
familiarizing himself with the ordinances? For
a reporting schedule from Sallers?
spent more time highlighting what turned out to be a
non-starter. Cummings caused or allowed
fireman Sallers to spend time serving as a doorman.
Cummings had on one occasion asked Sallers to serve
as a doorman for a half hour. Unbeknownst to
Cummings, during his absence from the Iroquois the
practice had become common and Sallers served as a
doorman an estimated twenty-five times, testified
stage worker Michael Bergin.
When the fire broke out, however, Sallers testified
he was in the basement looking for smokers, not
manning a door. So okay, Buckley, why did you
spend time on doorman questions? Are you
suggesting that Sallers spent so much time manning a
door that it prevented him from fireman tasks?
Is your argument that Sallers was manning a
door when he could instead have been nagging
Iroquois management to complete plumbing to the
stage so water ran to the standpipes?
Reminding them to bring contractors back to
complete installation of roof vents?
Contacting fire chief Musham to say, "There's a
disaster waiting to happen on Randolph street"?
Were you perhaps trying to learn if serving as a
doorman so damaged Saller's credibility that
management discounted his advice about fire fighting
preparedness? Was your goal to establish that
Cummings was habitually a careless manager of
subordinates? Serious fail, Dude.
elephants in the corner
chased blind alleys, Buckley left unprobed the most
critical consequence of Cummings' loosey-goosey
management style, one that led directly to an
increased death count. Cummings knew that a
pair of strip lamps, one on each side of the
proscenium, when left open, obstructed the fire
curtain descent, preventing it from dropping to the
stage floor. Stage workers testified that the
curtain had hung up on the lamp on prior
occasions, that the solution employed by Mr.
Bluebeard stage manager
William Carlton was to direct
workers, usually his assistant stage manager
"Close the strips, Plunk." In
keeping with the chronic blame game that went on
between Mr. Bluebeard stage workers and
Iroquois house stage workers, Iroquois workers were
critical of Carlton's catch-as-catch-can approach.
(Seems like the essential improvisational skills
required of a traveling company to meet constantly
changing physical conditions would inevitably be
viewed as disorder by workers at a single house for
whom constancy and systems are essential to
accommodate changing shows. Different
sees through blame game
and later prosecutors apparently recognized that
though Carlton had the more important sounding title
of stage manager, a fellow traveling through, off at
a different theater in a few weeks, isn't
responsible for preventing a theater's poorly
designed equipment from causing a safety problem.
Cummings was the house boss who should have directed
someone to mount the strip lamps to a pedestal or build a frame,
or hang them
from the ceiling, anything to get them out of the
path of the fire curtain. It was an important
point because had the curtain dropped to the
floor, the fire would have been contained to the
stage longer, giving time for more people to
evacuate the auditorium. There would still
have been hundreds of fatalities but a few hundred
more people might have survived.
coroner's inquest is supposed to be a fact-finding
process but Buckley's questions, at least as
excerpted in newspaper accounts, were sometimes maddeningly
off target. The line of questioning I'd have
liked to see might have demonstrated that Cummings'
approach to fire curtain operation reflected his
adoption of his boss's priorities in which the fire
curtain was relegated to a decor device, functioning
chiefly as eye candy. Davis
contracted with artist
John Lewis to
on the curtain, then used a page of the
souvenir program book to rhapsodize about it.*
In Davis' estate was a gouache painting by Lewis of
Iroquois Confederacy, possibly one of several
submitted by the artist, possibly even the one
selected and painted on the fire curtain.
Having personally discovered that painting amidst
others of Davis' special mementos I can with a high
degree of certainty say that he selected it as
carefully as the seating upholstery, light fixtures
and other decorative appointments. The decor,
including the native American theme, was his
personal imprint on the theater, as egocentric a
mark as if he'd named it the Davis Theater. As
a longtime employee, James E. Cummings got
that about his boss. Cummings knew that if
Davis was in the house, the Iroquois-themed curtain
better be on display. But when Davis was not
around, such as on December 30 when he was at a
Cummings could relax a bit.
Another question Buckley seemingly didn't ask: why
wasn't a replacement appointed for Cummings position
during his month-long absence? Was it
On to the
questioning satisfied the
coroners jury that a more extensive
Cummings role in the disaster was needed. He was indicted for
manslaughter and held on $3,000 bond pending the
grand jury trial.
Presumably Davis and/or Klaw-Erlanger
again posted his bond.
In October, 1904, along with
Iroquois business manager Thomas Noonan, Cummings was granted a
change of venue to Peoria. Circuit court judge
George Kersten spent several months studying the
cases and in February, 1905 announced that technical
problems required him to quash the indictments of
defendants to be tried in Chicago. He
explained the problems to the attorneys and gave the
prosecution a month to prepare new indictments.
judge Theodore N. Green, to whom the case
against Cummings and Noonan had been transferred,
had no choice but to quash their indictments as
When the grand jury met to
determine a post-quash strategy, they
decided to drop
prosecution of Noonan, Cummings, Sallers and
Iroquois co-owner Harry Powers. Only three
were re-indicted: Davis, for involuntary
manslaughter, and city building inspectors,
Edward Laughlin and
George Williams, for neglect of duty.
James Cummings was free to spend the rest of his
life telling himself he did nothing to be ashamed
Forty-four year old James Cummings (1858-) was an
Iowa native. His wife of nineteen years, Sarah, was from
Tennessee and his five sons were born in Arkansas
and Illinois. One of those sons, eighteen-year-old Roger
(1885-1942), worked at the Iroquois as an assistant to his father
and was called to testify in fire attorney
In the years after the fire
continued working in the theater industry until his
death roughly eight years later. Roger married a singer and
pianist, Lillian Rodgers, who performed as a soprano
soloist with the Chicago Civic Opera Co. and the Chatauqua
Traveling Co. He continued in the theater
industry until the 1920s when he changed careers and
industries, becoming a traveling salesman for South
Bend Bait. The pair eventually moved to Missoula, Montana and
he became a traveling salesman for
Brown & Bigelow, Inc. in the 1930s and 1940s
when it was one of the world's largest calendar